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Why Gary Wassner Says NYFW Needs to ‘Reignite the Excitement’: Touching Base

Hilldun Corp.’s CEO Gary Wassner has long been a fixture of New York Fashion Week, as his factoring firm, individual investments and private equity platform combined boast a client roster list including many of the fashion industry’s biggest names and runway regulars.

In this latest installment of the financial Q&A series Touching Base, Wassner reveals why NYFW is a priority, what he’s looking for and what he thinks the future holds for the week-long fashion event.

Sourcing Journal: You have become a regular at New York Fashion Week. Why do you go?

Gary Wassner: We go to support our clients who are showing. Those we rarely miss. I also go to many of the emerging brands to see what they’re doing and meet with the designers to see how they are presenting their vision on the runway. You can better understand what their true direction is from how they present it when you see it live on the runway. It’s very different from just seeing some images on a screen or samples on a hanger. I also attend many of the older, established brands’ shows, whom we’ve worked with in the past, or the brands that I just admire.

SJ: What are you looking for? Is it commercial viability or just to see if something has changed?

GW: It’s a business, so yes on commercial viability. If I see a change in vision or product direction and category, I generally want to know why. And yes, I’ll have a conversation with the designer, but I’ll also want to speak with retailers, too. In many cases, talking with retailers is more important for me during Fashion Week than with the designer, who often times has a view that can be more myopic. When retailers say, ‘Hey, what happened here? I don’t get it. We did well with their product for the last six seasons and now its diverging. What do I do?’ I will have that conversation with my client and share what the retailers’ impressions were.

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SJ: Do the designers listen?

GW: It varies. Some listen intently, and can’t wait for the feedback. Others will reach out later to the retailers and remind them that what they saw was just a runway show and that the showroom has another 30 styles that are more in keeping with what the retail buyer may be looking for. Some designers are proactive and others are resistant because they’re taking the comments personally. But for the designer and retailer alike, this is still a business and the line still needs to be salable.

SJ: So what are your impressions in terms of fashion trends for Fall/Winter 2020?

GW: It was a good fashion season. There was a lot more variety. Streetwear is still very important. Young and emerging brands continue to show in New York. I also saw a lot more casual tailoring  appearing everywhere. Occasion dressing is becoming less important because people aren’t getting as dressed up as they used to, and also due to so many options in terms of rental and resale. But those brands that are strong, and known as the go-to for evening, have a greater opportunity to solidify their foothold in the category as they will have fewer competitors on the design side. Category focus is important.

Financier Gary Wassner believes the just-completed NYFW lost some of its mojo, and that the fashion industry has to make it special again.
Hilldun Corp’s Gary Wassner George Chinsee

SJ: Many of your clients operate in the luxury and contemporary space. Were they also showing more casual options?

GW: I noticed that there were fewer designers showing full designer and luxury collections, and what I saw was much more contemporary styling and easy dressing. Designers seemed more committed to designing into their existing strengths, such as Sally LaPointe and Jason Wu, rather than offering broad arrays of subsidiary categories.

SJ: Do we not care about luxury anymore?

GW: Luxury is growing globally, but here we’ve basically conceded a big portion of the luxury marketplace to the Europeans, and we’ve always been great at contemporary and setting the trends. Most firms struggle with full luxury lines as they’re not financed in the same way as [their counterparts] are in Europe.

In Europe, the production of an 60-piece designer runway collection from a young brand will have the financial backing of a deep-pocketed investor. It’s expensive to create 60 samples for the runway, which will likely have a 50 percent or less final adoption rate. For 60 pieces, 40 styles may be ordered by retailers, but some of these styles will not have enough units ordered to produce and only 35 will actually be made. Meanwhile, the designer is spending a lot of money on sampling. Unless one has a patient backer, it’s hard to maintain that kind of business. In the U.S., we don’t have the kind of conglomerate like an LVMH or Kering to support the luxury designers over a long period of time, and give them the business runway they need to gain traction and grow.

SJ:  New York Fashion Week had some challenges this season, a shorter calendar and some names who elected not to do a runway show. What is your sense of the future for New York Fashion Week?

GW: New York Fashion Week remains an important week in the fashion sector. The designers here are innovative and creative. And unique. What is needed is some work to re-ignite the excitement. We have the designers, but we just have to generate the excitement around them and New York Fashion Week.

I saw some great collections, and there always are great collections on the New York runways. But I feel that as an industry we need to make it feel special again. Young brands need more support financially as well as on the marketing side. The industry leadership needs to encourage foreign press and retailers to remain committed to New York Fashion Week, and there are many ways to do this.

I sensed a mood  of apathy this season, as if many were giving up on New York Fashion Week. The press was running with stories about the end of New York Fashion Week. I read similar comments about London Fashion Week recently. We need to rally around our talent in the U.S., not be laissez faire towards it. The industry is in turmoil, from the design rooms to the supply chain and through to retail.  Designers are worried. A calm and guiding voice needs to emerge.

New York City is the most exciting and vibrant city in the world.  New York Fashion Week needs to reflect the energy and entrepreneurial spirit of this city again. I, for one, am not willing to concede this ground to Paris and Milan. Rather, we need to be proactive and strengthen what we do best here, not throw in the towel.